The Piano Lesson
by August Wilson
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The infamous piano at the center of the play's conflict is about as symbolic as it gets. It has meant a lot of things to a lot of different people over the years. Now, sitting in Doaker's living room, it carries all of those meanings with it. Early on in its history, the piano represented pretty much all that was messed up about slavery. It originally came into the lives of the Charles family when they were still enslaved by the Sutters. Robert Sutter exchanged Boy Willie and Berniece's great grandmother and grandfather for the piano. So, this piano was literally bought with the flesh and blood of the Charles family. Put it all together, and you can say that the piano represents slavery itself.
The piano is more than just a symbol of slavery though. It's also represents the strength and resiliency of the Charles family. Miss Ophelia, Sutter's wife, started to really miss Berniece and Boy Willie's great grandmother and grandfather. However, Mr. Nolander, the guy who Sutter made the deal with, wouldn't re-exchange the slaves. Miss Ophelia got really sick because she missed her slaves so badly. So, Sutter ordered Willie Boy, Berniece and Boy Willie's great grandfather, to carve pictures of them into the piano. Willie Boy did as he was asked, but went even further. He carved the faces of his wife and child, who were traded for the piano, but he also carved the whole history of his family. With this act of rebellion he reclaimed the piano in a way. He took the object that his family had been traded for and made it his. Now the piano represented not just the degradation of slavery, but also the strength and dignity of those people who were enslaved.
The piano caused more trouble for the Charles family later on, and thus became an even more complex symbol. Boy Willie and Berniece's father, Boy Charles, became obsessed with the piano. By the time he came along, slavery had been abolished. However, he felt like as long as the Sutters still owned the piano, his whole family was symbolically still in slavery. So, Boy Charles and his brothers, Doaker and Wining Boy, took the piano from Sutter's house. Unfortunately, Boy Charles was set on fire inside a boxcar after the piano was found missing. After this tragedy, the piano not only represented slavery and the strength of the Charles family, it also represented violence. Berniece says that her mother, Mama Ola, "polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in …mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it" (1.2.162). You can sum all this up by saying that the piano represents the whole history of the Charles family.
All of the piano's symbolic meanings come together at the climax of the play when Berniece uses it to banish Sutter's ghost. By this point, the piano has become a holy altar to the dead. It had already become this when Berniece was a child. Berniece's mother used to be able to hear her dead father's voice when Berniece played the piano. Berniece also says the pictures on the piano would come alive and walk through the house at night. The spirits of the piano carry with them all the symbolism that we've talked about already. They are the history of the Charles family. Since her mother died, Berniece has tried to hide from this history by not playing the piano. However, at the play's climax she finally plays the piano again, and she symbolically draws on her family's history in order to finally banish Sutter from their lives.
As if all that wasn't enough, the piano has an even bigger symbolism. Not only can you see it as representing the Charles family's history, you can also see it as representing the history of all African Americans. Pianos are originally European instruments. However, our piano is a little different from most. The opening stage directions tell us, "On the legs of piano, carved in the manner of African sculpture, are mask-like figures resembling totems" (1.1.1). So, what we have here is a European instrument decorated with African-style carvings – the piano is a symbolic blend of African and European cultures.
This is exactly what African-American culture is. When slaves were first brought to America, much of their African identity was slowly stripped away. Over the generations, they lost their languages, religions, and much of their cultural identity. However, African Americans made the most of what they had and created a new culture – one that was a blend of African and European influences. So, when Berniece plays on the piano at the end of the play, she's not just summoning the strength of her own family's history, she's symbolically drawing on the history of the entire African American community.